Chicken at a roast beef joint?

I’m one of those weird people who, if forced to eat at Arby’s for some reason (it’s rare), orders a chicken sandwich. Or chicken tenders. I’m just not a fan of the Arby’s mystery meat.

Of course, this reminds me of when Arby’s first came to this market when I was a kid; my parents liked it, but we were poor enough that I had never even seen a roast beef sandwich, let alone eaten one. No thanks, I told them, I’ll just have a burger. One problem: Arby’s didn’t serve burgers. Needless to say, we didn’t go to Arby’s much when I was a kid.

But after a while, Arby’s diversified (even serving burgers, however briefly) and it seems that, over the last few decades, other fast-food chains have done the same. Wendy’s used to rely on mediocre chili, ice cream-ish drinks called Frosties and big, square burgers, and now you can get grilled chicken wraps. McDonald’s was all about greasy burgers and greasy fries, yet now you can get a southwest grilled chicken salad. Or apple slices.

You get the idea and, yes, I am getting to the point.

So, I tried out Top Round Roast Beef when it opened a few weeks back. Originating in California, the soon-to-be-national-chain chose Louisville as its second home and offers up tasty curly fries (way better than Arby’s) and seven different types of roast beef sandwiches, from the OG (original, with just seasoning and au jus) to the Horse & Hole (with Provel cheese, horseradish cream and roasted mushrooms). The version I had was the beef and cheese, and I will say this: It is no mystery meat. Top Round is a tad pricey, but the quality and flavor are there.

But I noticed, and even giggled a little when I did so, that there also are two chicken sandwiches on the menu. Chicken at a roast beef place, just like Arby’s. And, since I love a good paradox, especially if food is involved, I went back and ordered the OG chicken sandwich, just to see if a place that specializes in roast beef can do chicken, too.

I’m here to report that the chicken sandwich at Top Round is better than that at Arby’s. Lots better. In fact, the OG at Top Round is sort of like a Chick-fil-A sandwich on steroids (except without actual steroids). It’s basically just fried chicken breast on a bun, with pickles. Top Round adds mayo to the mix, but that isn’t the sole differentiator at play. For one, the sandwich is served on a fluffy, delicious onion bun rather than relatively tasteless white bread. Score.

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Also, the pickles are not the thin, flimsy things you can find in mega-jars at any supermarket; they’re crispy, flavorful discs that could have been canned by your grandmother (and there’s more than one per sandwich!). But most importantly, the sandwich passes the fried chicken test.

I’ve written about this standard before in this space, but it’s no guarantee anyone remembers. You see, when I’m eating fried chicken that has been removed from the bone, part of how I judge its merit is how much it reminds me of actual, country-style fried chicken. For instance, a “boneless” chicken wing (it’s a chicken wad, not a wing) at, say, Buffalo Wild Wings, is nowhere close to fried chicken. It’s almost a Chicken McNugget and I don’t know what the heck those things are.

However, the chicken tenders at Spring Street Bar and Grill are quite close and the chicken sandwich there is even closer. Why? Because they’re hand-breaded and didn’t come out of a frozen brown sack, only to be dumped directly into a pit of hot grease. So, there’s the fried chicken test, short version.

Well, Top Round brines its chicken in buttermilk and pickle juice (sounds awful, but it’s not), batters it and the end result is a crisp, tasty coating that, well, comes very close to tasting like actual fried chicken you’d eat with mashed potatoes and green beans.

It tastes very, er, Kentucky. Or at least Southern. I find this pretty impressive, considering the menu was developed in California.

Anyway, after I finished my sandwich and pondered what I’d just experienced, it dawned on me that maybe this is part of why Top Round chose Kentucky for its first franchise expansion. Sure, it relies on its roast beef, but the powers that be had to know what a chicken-crazy state this is.

Top Round also has hot dogs, but don’t get me started on that. No one needs to hear my ketchup rant again.

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